ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Digital Illustration, Making the Switch

For the beginner, digital illustration can seem like a minefield. Alison Padley-Woods asks illustrator, Paul Morton, for some tips and advice.

With the constant stream of new technology and a range of graphic arts apps now available for tablets, it can be argued that digital illustration is like having a studio in your pocket, but can a digital tool fully replace a real brush or pencil? 

If you’re an illustrator working traditionally and looking to switch to digital methods, this question, along with costs and ease of working, will probably be one of the main considerations before you start. And you can be forgiven for taking a step back before you do, because if you’re a novice, not well versed in digital illustration, the subject can be mind-boggling.

For a start, there are so many devices and software options: Wacom versus iPad, PC or MacBookPhotoshop versus Procreate, Painter, Affinity, Illustrator, InDesign, or Clip Studio Paint. If you haven’t come across CMYK or RGB, the design modes for visualising colour, you soon will, and there are Apple pencils, Logtech Crayons, image sizes and custom brushes to consider too. 

CYMK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key)

To answer some of your questions, I asked illustrator, Paul Morton, for a few tips and advice. Paul, whose first picture book Bug Belly Babysitting Trouble, was published by Five Quills in April, has worked digitally for many years. “Being digital,” he says, “or going digital has been pivotal in my career as an illustrator, but trying to return to a more spontaneous hands-on approach has been the crux of getting published this year. So, it's a very pertinent subject.” 

Bug Belly Babysitting Trouble, by Paul Morton  (Five Quills)
To see Paul painting this cover in Procreate go to: Bug Belly cover in Procreate

So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of digital illustration and do publishers expect illustrators to work digitally these days? Paul explains:
I imagine publishers are only interested to see the effect pictures make on them and their readers, regardless of how they are created. There are digital illustrations that appear to all the world as painted, or charcoal. They can’t be told apart.
The main advantage to working digitally is that any number of tweaks and colour correcting can be done so easily. There are unlimited colours, effects and ‘undos’, and an array of tools. A talented artist can make their ‘voice’ shine through regardless of media. A not so experienced, or less confident artist can become a slave to the digital tools and lose whatever originality they have.
Many illustrators crave the hands-on, painterly, collage, watercolour craft of creating, and rather than holding back from going digital, they are wise enough to know when to switch. Ultimately, all artwork is scanned in and becomes digital to get it into print. It’s whether the artist tinkers with that process or leaves it to professionals. Most artists want to get in on the control of how their artwork ends up, even if they didn’t create digitally.

It seems there’s a fine balance to summing up the advantages and disadvantages. Clearly, the texture a brush or pencil produces creates energy that affects how an illustration is perceived. So, is there anything to be lost in the fine nuances of illustration by switching? Paul explains his experience:
I felt I was riding the new Apple Mac software wave back in the early 1980’s. Because I produce commercial advertising work too, I took the plunge and went totally digital.
Although all my work starts with pencil sketches, I produced the final finished art slick advertising design. Initially, this definitely damaged my book illustration work and chances of getting published as it looked too polished.
Paul at work (credit: Paul Morton)

It's important to weigh up the pros and cons, because it soon becomes an apparent that this is an investment. You may need to invest in new hardware for the power-hungry app, a training course – certainly you will need to invest time.

So, where to begin? Any research soon leads you to Adobe Photoshop – the industry standard for photo-editing, image creation and graphics. It usable on most devices, available on a free trial basis and Adobe offer comprehensive online training; the basics, they claim can be learned in five to ten hours. Yet, Photoshop is the most expensive; payment is by monthly subscription – restrictive and perhaps unnecessary when alternatives such as GIMP, Paint.NET and Affinity are free to download, or available with a one-off payment. So, is there anything to be gained for paying a monthly fee for the Adobe software? Paul explains:

Yes, the number one software is Photoshop, followed closely by Painter for natural media. For the last two years I’ve also painted in Procreate on the iPad, but I’ve heard lots of good things about Gimp. I detest the monthly subs for software and have stuck with the version of Photoshop that didn’t require lots of extra payment. So far, I’ve not seen any disadvantage in this.
The alternatives don’t appear to have many flaws. It seems finding the right device and software is subjective, but are some options better depending on whether your traditional media is pen and ink, watercolour, or crayon? Or do most cover all styles and options?

Delving into this question, Photoshop comes out top in terms of the more advanced tools such as custom brushes, managing colour and retouching, but as Paul explains:

You need your own voice, your own style and that doesn’t come from any particular media. For the sheer enjoyment of working in digital ‘traditional’ media then Procreate is my choice. That said, I know lots of professionals who love painting on Wacom’s Cintique and I’ve not tried that.

Bug Belly Babysitting Trouble, by Paul Morton (Five Quills)

Finally, for one piece of advice before starting out, Paul says:

Don’t start to work digitally until you can draw proficiently. Until you have all the attributes of a professional illustrator, colour sense, composition etc. i.e., a grounding in traditional skills. Only then move over to digital.

Whether, or whenever, you make the switch, one thing is certain, digital illustration isn’t going away. It comes with advantages that in this tech-driven world are difficult to ignore, but can it really substitute a whole room full of paint, brushes, canvases and paper? It’s a subject probably still up for debate.

Header photograph by Pierre Bamin


Paul Morton is a professional illustrator with lots of stories to tell. He helps run SCBWI's Picture Book Retreat, likes frogs, wild mushrooms and mountain biking and gets lots of his best ideas whilst out pedaling. He keeps frogs in the pond in his garden and has actually named quite a few of them.
His favourite word is pebble.


Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Alison used to work for Condé Nast’s Brides magazine. She now writes middle grade fiction and picture books and has been shortlisted and longlisted for several prizes including The Times/Chicken House Competition, Bath Children’s Novel Award and Writing Magazine’s Picture Book Prize. @AliPadleyWoods

1 comment:

  1. Delighted that you use an older version of Photoshop, Paul, and detest subscription services. Makes me feel better for using CS5 on an old iMac. Nice nuanced article, thanks. btw there's a missing word in that final spread. Hope the publishers had a proofreader. I'm always at your service for book 2 haha!


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